Pimsleur Language Aptitude Battery

The Pimsleur Language Aptitude Battery (PLAB) was developed by Dr. Paul Pimsleur to test the language aptitude of students in grades 7-14. The Pimsleur Language Aptitude Battery is now the property of the non-profit entity Language Learning and Testing Foundation, which acquired the rights to the test in order to ensure its continued availability to the foreign language teaching community.  Publication of the PLAB completes LLTF’s suite of language learning aptitude tests by filling the age gap between the Modern Language Aptitude Test – Elementary (for grades 3-6) and the adult version of the Modern Language Aptitude Test (for grades 11-12 and adults). The PLAB was specially designed for junior high and high school students, and it can be administered as early as grade 7.
The PLAB will help teachers determine a student’s readiness to begin the study of foreign language and identify the students with a special talent or “ear for language.” The test materials also include a “Student Performance Chart” that provides the teacher with valuable diagnostic information which can be used to help maximize the chances of successful language learning for all students.

Frequently Asked Questions – And Answers

Who was Paul Pimsleur?

Paul Pimsleur

Dr. Paul Pimsleur (1927-1976) was an applied linguist whose interests involved language testing, language learning and language teaching. After finishing his Ph.D. in French literature at Columbia University, he earned an M.A. in psychological statistics, also at Columbia. He was particularly interested in the role of listening in language learning. For many years, he was a professor at Ohio State University, where he was in charge of Ohio State’s language laboratory, which he named the Listening Center. His background and training in research made him unique among foreign language educators.

One of Pimsleur’s interests was the underachieving student of foreign languages. An underachiever is a student who does well in other subjects, but poorly in foreign language. Pimsleur studied such students in secondary schools and concluded that attitude toward learning and motivation to do well in school is not a problem among these students. Instead, their problem is a lack of auditory ability, which he described as the ability to receive and process information through the ear. On the other hand, he found that students who were high in auditory ability did well in foreign language studies. Pimsleur described this auditory ability as consisting of two components: sound discrimination and sound-symbol association. Combined, these components are similar to Carroll’s phonetic coding ability. Thus, thus Pimsleur created a language aptitude test that includes measures of attitude toward foreign language learning, grades in other core subjects (as a measure of motivation and study habits), and language aptitude. The aptitude portion of his test produces scores for both auditory and verbal ability, which for Pimsleur was the other ability needed for foreign language learning. Pimsleur’s test was developed between 1962 and 1965, and Pimsleur was able to benefit from Carroll’s research in the previous decade. For this reason, the PLAB combines measures of attitude, motivation and aptitude, in order to enhance its ability to predict foreign language achievement.

Paul Pimsleur was much admired by the doctoral students in foreign language education at Ohio State, and his untimely death at age 48 was a loss to the field of foreign language education. A founding member of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, that organization created an annual award for outstanding research on foreign language learning in his name.

What are some possible uses of the PLAB?
  • Helping to identify “foreign language learning disabled” students.
  • Helping to understand a student’s cognitive skills relevant to language learning.
  • Helping to understand why a student is performing poorly in a foreign language course.
  • Helping to identify gifted students, those with above average foreign language aptitude and those likely to succeed in FL study.
  • Developing profiles of students’ strengths and weaknesses to inform language teaching.
  • Seeing how students perform relative to national norms.
  • Developing local norms and developing uses for the scores after norms are established.
  • Creating “expectancy tables” to show the relationship between language aptitude scores and grades in foreign language classes.
How is the PLAB used for selection?

The PLAB will help identify students who show promise of rapid learning and the likelihood of attaining a high level of proficiency. Students with superior talent may well be offered foreign language instruction earlier than others.  In that sense, it can serve as a measure of cognitive readiness for FL study. 

On the other hand, it is inappropriate to use the PLAB to screen a student out of a language course that the child wants to take. Given good instructional support, plus enough time and exposure, virtually all children can learn a foreign language.  Furthermore, any child can benefit from foreign language study.

How is the PLAB used for placement?

In schools where it is the practice to offer foreign language instruction to all students at given grade levels, the PLAB is useful for placement. If the number of students is large enough to justify more than one class or section, students may be grouped by aptitude level so that they will be with peers with similar abilities, thus allowing them to work together and progress at about the same rate.

How is the PLAB used for guidance?

PLAB scores may be used by teachers and guidance counselors to estimate the child’s probable success in foreign language learning. The PLAB measures the child’s aptitude or ability; moreover, his or her interest and motivation to learn another language is also appraised.

So far as is known, a child’s aptitude for learning one language is about the same as his or her aptitude for learning any other language. The fact that students sometimes show different degrees of success in different languages is probably to be accounted for by differences in motivation and interest, in teaching methods, and in other factors not related to basic aptitude. By using the “Student Performance Chart,” the counselor can more readily determine whether a language learning problem is due to lack of basic aptitude, motivation, study habits, or to other factors.

What is a foreign language learning disability, and how can the PLAB be used in diagnosing one?

A foreign language learning disability (FLLD) may be defined as low aptitude for learning languages in comparison with the student’s aptitude for learning other subjects. It is usually established by administering a battery of tests, including a language aptitude test such as the PLAB, MLAT or the MLAT-E, and examining the pattern of scores. If the student shows normal aptitude for other school subjects but much lower aptitude on measures relating to language, then evidence of a weakness or disability in language aptitude is established. Another aspect of such an assessment is to examine the student’s past performance in different subjects. If the student does well in other subjects but poorly in language, then this provides further evidence of a substantial discrepancy in his or her abilities.

Sometimes a cognitive-academic disability is defined as an aptitude score below a certain percentile, such as the 20th percentile, the 10th percentile, or the 5th percentile. Whether the cutoff point is made on a case-by-case basis or set for the purpose of establishing a policy for a particular school, the decision must be made by a qualified professional as part of a comprehensive diagnostic procedure.

The PLAB test can be used in developing a history of difficulty in learning foreign languages. For example, a school psychologist who is doing a diagnostic evaluation of a student who is progressing slowly in foreign language classes could use test results from the PLAB in conjunction with input from FL teachers and data from progress in language courses to help establish a diagnosis of a foreign language learning disability. Ideally, the MLAT-E would be administered when the student was in grade school, the PLAB would be administered at the junior high or high school level, and the MLAT would be administered at a future point, such as in the first or year of university studies and when the student is facing a foreign language requirement. Consistently poor performances on these tests over the years would strongly support the case for a language learning disability. It is especially important that such diagnoses be accurate and credible, because other special services and accommodations may be contingent on their outcome.

To read two articles at LD Online about foreign language learning disabilities, click on the following links:

Learning Disabilities and Foreign Language Learning, by Robin L. Schwartz
Foreign Language Learning and Learning Disabilities: Making the College Transition, by Sally S. Scott and Elaine Manglitz

When should the test be given, and to what age groups?

The PLAB will be most useful for selection, placement, or guidance if given before or at the time students begin the study of a foreign language. However, the PLAB also provides helpful information about the basic language learning abilities of students who may already have received foreign language instruction. Prior language training does not affect scores on the PLAB, because the type of content included in the test is not ordinarily included in foreign language courses. The test can be given at the end of grade 6, or during the school year for grades 7-12.

Is the PLAB easy to administer?

The PLAB is easy to administer because the instructions for Parts 3, 4, 5, and 6 are on the recording. The timing of the test is also automatically controlled by the recording, thus leaving the teacher free to proctor the test.

Time: 50-60 minutes. Parts 1 and 2 may be filled out in advance if desired.

How are scores recorded and interpreted?

The PLAB is scored using a Hand Scoring Stencil. The raw scores from each section are added to calculate a total score. The raw scores from Parts 3 and 4 are added together to calculate the “Verbal Ability” score and the raw scores from Parts 5 and 6 are added together to calculate the “Auditory Ability” score. Verbal ability is the student’s word knowledge in English and his ability to think in terms of a foreign language. Auditory ability is the student’s ability to learn new sounds and to recognize them when spoken and written. The PLAB Test Kit includes both a “Class Record” and an individualized “Student Performance Chart and Report to Parents.” Each of these documents provides a space for scores on the 6 parts of the test to make score interpretation easier.

What test materials should I order?

Each examinee requires a test booklet, an answer sheet and a Student Performance Chart and Report to Parents. Administration of the test requires the test manual, CD, hand-scoring stencil for scoring the answer sheet, and Class Record. The test kit contains everything necessary to administer the test to five people. Additional materials can be ordered separately. Due to the nature of the product, ALL SALES ARE FINAL.

Most psychologists administer the PLAB to only one person at a time. Thus, they usually purchase one test kit and one additional package of 20 answer sheets and 20 practice exercise sheets. That way, they have materials for the eventual testing of 25 people.

Classroom teachers and researchers normally administer the PLAB to groups of people. Thus, they usually order additional test booklets so as to permit group administration. For example, a teacher or researcher who will administer the test to four groups of 20 students will need one test kit, 20 reusable test booklets, four packages of 20 answer sheets, and four packages of 20 practice exercise sheets. If the test is to be administered simultaneously in different locations, then an additional test kit will be needed for each location.

PLAB Sample Items